An average day at Zoom university is spent almost entirely online: hours of Zoom lectures, Zoom office hours, Zoom socials, with added hours of guilty social media usage in between. After a semester where my most visited places were my bed and desk, I couldn’t take it anymore. I came to UT campus, ready for the friendships, late nights, and memories of the real university experience that awaited me.
My first week here, I was invited to a small in-person gathering. Perfect! I arrived slightly early, delighted to see all the new people I was about to meet.
We started off with introductions and the typical icebreaker questions (favorite books, TV shows, movies, etc). Next we—…silence…. I squirmed in my seat as an air of nervousness and suspense descended. The pause seemed to last forever. Relief washed over me as someone else took the spotlight. As they spoke, I prepared my own act. I juggled between reacting with an “ooh” or “aah” and running an analysis over my entire life history for an entertaining story that would receive its own applause. Each second felt like I was on a tightrope, with only the unstable memory of my brain to keep the conversation from slipping into deathly silence. I looked for the proper cue before speaking—a certain number of seconds that was long enough for someone else to jump in, but not too long for it to be awkward. All this contorting of my personality into someone I thought would be liked was exhausting. After two hours, the show could not go on. It was time to leave.
What in the world was that? Why was I turning into a clown?
Afterward, I couldn’t recall a single thing about the people I spent two hours with. It was also oddly reminiscent of the daily dance between audience and performer on social media; I panicked when faced with silence, desperately needed approval, and left feeling emptier than I had before. There was no real connection, only a performance.
Today’s social media interfaces are designed to maximize entertainment over sincere interactions, connectivity over connectedness. Prior to 2008, social network services served as databases for users’ personal information, allowing for variable modes of self-presentation as a more random and open tool. Afterward, sites shifted to monetize connectivity by maximizing data traffic between people, places, things, and ideas. Uniform data and a cohesive narrative became valued for their utility in tracking trends and advertising. Now, these sites are a tool for storytelling and narrative self-presentation—a digital stage.
On a site like Facebook, for instance, our profile is the center of the publication, and we are the protagonist of our own story. The “Timeline” forces us to be aware of how we’re perceived and how we can control our image. Options for customization like our profile picture, status updates, and photos show the public identity we’re shaping and imply how we want our story to be told. These features direct the way we think of our identity as we express it through a combination of self-promotion and self-expression. Without realization, we’re overtaken by a hyper-consciousness of our self-image.
These same tools of narrative, promotion, and expression are used by advertisers to connect to their audience, blurring the line between products and people. Ads blend in with the narrative structure of the timeline. The same interface and data analytics force advertisers and people to present their information and measure success similarly. People with high-quality narratives and success on social media happen to be good sellers as well. Consequently, self-expression and self-promotion become ever the more entwined, making us associate expressing our identity with selling ourselves and vice versa.
Moreover, replies which are a common way interaction occurs online, are shrouded in considerations of entertainment. An interesting study on the performative nature of replies on the platform Tumblr reveals how considerations of an audience play out in interactions with the online personas of others. The lack of social expectation for a response and public, but not too public sphere create a comfortable place for casual engagement. Direct messages which have a known singular audience, however, were described as “awkward,” “belligerent,” and “uncomfortable.” There’s a risk of getting too personal and potentially starting an awkward conversation. Replies, rather, are low investment with no expectations for the recipient. This environment of juggling self-image, low investment, and low expectations evokes that of my earlier group interaction, where responses were intended to entertain rather than connect.
We didn’t always live in such a performance-driven world. For much of history, people were judged by their character rather than the personality they presented. The word “personality” didn’t exist until the 18th century, but since the 20th century, personality has become the focus of how our culture evaluates people. The Industrial Revolution’s concentration on salesmanship and business has shifted our culture to favor extroversion. We’ve gone from a culture of character—integrity and morals— to a culture of personality—magnetic, charismatic, and attractive.
According to Susan in her book, Quiet, this culture of personality required “every American to become a performing self.” Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People further launched a wave of performance-oriented culture. People were convinced to work on their personality and businesses began preferring extroverted employees. Rather than valuing sincere, dedicated craft, the ability to put on a good show became the standard.
Social media has spurred our transition into a culture of personality and performance. Our brains are plastic and can be shaped by repeated activities we participate in. Intellectual technologies like social media that help us formulate our identity and share ideas can alter patterns without our conscious desire to do so. With intense, sustained stimulus, our entire mental composition is altered. People between ages 16-29 spend an average of 3 hours a day on social media. During this time, their brains are trained to performative socializing.
Such behavioral changes are valued by social media company CEOs. LinkedIn CEO says: “More important are the behavioral changes taking place as a result of that infrastructure, the way in which people represent their identity, the way in which people are connecting with others, and the way in which they’re sharing information, knowledge, opinions, ideas, everything.” By affecting our behavior, LinkedIn has formed a critical role for itself in the corporate world. Employers use profile stats to evaluate applicants. High scores shape the ideal employee as one who is well-connected, sociable, likable, and skilled. Also, candidates for employment can be rejected for unlikable character traits or inappropriate behavior on social network sites. It’s becoming increasingly important for career-driven folks to craft an online identity, performing as the perfect employee.
The world of weak ties, low investment interactions, and self-promotion continues to encroach on our lives, taking up a larger block of our day-to-day life. With everyone looking to entertain, there’s no one left to listen. The author Ruth Ozeki describes “the millions of people in their lonely little rooms, furiously writing and posting to their lonely little pages that nobody has time to read because they’re all so busy writing and posting.” Gen Z spends the most time on social media and is also the loneliest age group in America. The culture of performance is unsustainable.
To counter this narcissistic inclination towards self-image and self-promotion, focusing on listening to others is necessary. The Socratic method provides a valuable approach to conversations. First, Socrates practiced “maieutics,” a word that comes from the Greek for “of midwifery.” Truth, he believed, was inside each individual and needed the “midwife” to “give birth” to it. Second, Socrates focused on appropriating interactions to each person. He tailored questions to his subject’s experiences, going from a simple daily activity to a deeper discussion of important things. Not only did this method help to reveal something new to the person Socrates was talking to, but it also left him with valuable insight as well.
With these new ideas of listening instead of entertaining, I decided to give socializing another try a few weeks after that unfortunate group meeting. This time, I paid attention when they spoke, discovering similarities to relate to and quirks I could ask more about. My questions and responses were genuine, without the plastic mask I formerly wore. It wasn’t always perfect; I fell off balance when I worried over their perception of me or panicked at silence. As long as I refocused, I could regain my footing. Once awkward pauses became a chance to breathe or smile. When I left, after several hours slipped away, I had a new friend.
Let’s be listeners, not entertainers. Empathetic, not narcissistic. People, not clowns.